How Anti-Depressants Saved My Life

Psychiatric medication often gets a bad rap. People assume a lot of things when you mention that you’re taking them—that you’re nuts, that you can’t handle you mental health, that you’re weak—all of which are not true. People are also scared of them. They worry about what it means to alter your mood with pills, and they worry about the side-effects. These are reasonable worries. On this World Mental Health Day, I’m here to tell you about my journey of being on anti-depressants, how they saved my life and why I think you shouldn’t be afraid to start them if you need them. We’re about to get real personal.

I’ve struggled with mental illness since I was really young. Like really young. So young that I can’t even remember a time where my life didn’t feel colored with depression. I have Major Depressive Disorder, severe, recurrent (MDD), which in a nutshell means that I have intense bouts of depression and lack of motivation very often. I started going to therapy my senior year of high school, but around my second semester of freshman year, I realized that my weekly appointments just weren’t enough. Even though I knew the logic behind my emotions and adaptive coping mechanisms, I still felt incredibly sad most of the time. I couldn’t pull myself out of it, no matter how hard I tried in Cognitive Behavior Therapy.

The hardest part about this was that I really, super-duper wanted to die.  Like all the time. I first unsuccessfully attempted suicide when I was thirteen, unbeknownst to my parents, and since then I hadn’t attempted again, but the thought was always with me. I had great friends, at the time I had a wonderful boyfriend, I had just rushed a sorority I really loved and at the time I had a 4.0 G.P.A. So, there was really no logical explanation behind why I wanted to die all the time. I talked to my therapist about possibly seeing a psychiatrist, and he whole-heartedly agreed.

My psychiatrist isn’t a “throw pills at the problem” kind of doctor. He got to know my history, my patterns and my personality before working with me to find the medication that was right for me. I started on an anti-depressant and we slowly titrated up to the right dosage. Over the years, we have tinkered with it to find my best combination of meds, from adding a mood stabilizer to adding a medication that would help my lack of energy to getting off the mood stabilizer and finally to the combination of medications that I am now on today. It has been a long journey.

How do I know that psychiatric medication was the right choice for me? The answer comes in an unfortunate anecdote. Right before my junior year, I went off my meds. It was a combination of wanting to believe that I could handle my mental illness and also working so much that I didn’t have time to go to the pharmacy. The reasons don’t really matter, but the result does. On a rainy Friday evening in the apartment I was subleasing from my best friend, I tried to kill myself. It was the first time I had seriously attempted since I was 13. Obviously, I was unsuccessful, and I am beyond thankful that I was. It was the most terrifying time of my life. There were a lot of reasons why I made the attempt, but one of the huge ones was that I had messed up my brain chemistry. Going off my medication forced me to realize how important my continued use of anti-depressants was.

Being on medication for me isn’t just something helpful, it is a necessity. For people like me, it can be something that will help you to heal, to recover, to get through your mental illness. Sometimes you work your hardest in therapy, but if your brain isn’t making any serotonin, no amount of self-love exercises are going to cure that.

Anti-depressants haven’t cured my depression. I still have depressive episodes. I will always have depressive episodes. But it has raised the floor of my depression. The episodes are less frequent and less intense, and they are gentler. My suicidality has improved, with the impulses coming around less and less as I have finally gotten on the right cocktail of meds. When I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom, I don’t feel buried like I used to. And sure, part of this is me becoming a more secure, self-possessed person. But part of that cannot be attributed to anything but me being on the right medications for my brain. So yes, anti-depressants have saved my life. Every day that I am still alive is in part because I have found the balance with my brain chemistry that keeps me stable despite the debilitating mental illness with which I am cursed.

Medication isn’t the right choice for everyone. It is certainly something that you need to discuss extensively with your doctor and your therapist. But if you think you might need them, don’t be afraid to speak up. It’s not a bad thing. It is not weak. It does not mean you can’t handle your mental illness. They are an extra step to make you feel better when you are ill, just like with any other illness.

Imagine that you wear glasses. Can you see without your glasses? Yes. Kind of. But can you see as well as other people? No. Is that your fault? No, it’s just part of how your body was made with genetics and biology and all that fun stuff. Could you manage without the glasses? You’d have to squint a lot, and there would just be some stuff that you wouldn’t be able to see. Should you soldier on without your glasses in belief that if you work hard enough, you’ll be able to see as well as other people? No. You need those glasses, so you wear those glasses. There’s literally no point in telling a person who wears glasses to not wear them, because no matter how hard they try, they’re just not going to be able to see. And that’s okay.

A medication is something that should help you through life. It isn’t a crutch, but rather an additional support. They will not be perfect. You may have to take some time and find some other pills until you truly find what works for you, like I did. There may be side effects for the first month or so, but they are often so much lesser than the alternative of you suffering.

If you are drowning in your mental illness, it is okay to ask for help. You don’t have to try so hard. It is scary to take that step, but if you need it, I think it is worth a try.